British Columbians eat more food than they produce.
According to governments statistics, food produced annually in B.C. amounts to a little more than half of what residents consume.
“That figure is probably not going to get any better,” former Ministry of Agriculture agrologist Graham Strachan said. “It’ll probably get worse.”
Aging farmers, irrigation challenges, consolidation of small farms into larger enterprises, political influence and a rising minimum wage continue to challenge B.C.’s agriculture industry.
The Thompson-Nicola Regional District recently received a presentation from the Ministry of Agriculture, outlining challenges and opportunities in the local agriculture industry — an area of the province Strachan said has potential.
The board heard other areas of the province, such as the Okanagan, are intensely produced, with competition for water.
“In my view, it’s [TNRD] the largest remaining land area in B.C. with significant high-capability agricultural lands not being used to their full potential,” Strachan said.
“That doesn’t mean we need to use them to their full potential now, but recognizing that the lands that are out there, what they actually can produce.”
Prime agricultural land is typically located in the valley bottoms.
Dhaliwal Green Acres Farms, just past Rayleigh in Kamloops, is one example of this, producing enough onions in one year to feed 200,000 people. Other farms in the area produce everything from vegetables to beef.
Desert Hills Ranch in Ashcroft supplies cantaloupe to Loblaws stores from B.C. to Thunder Bay, Ont., while organic beef produced in the Ashcroft-Cache Creek area is sold to Lower Mainland grocery stores like Whole Foods and Thrifty Foods.
However, the board heard just nine per cent of Canadian farmers in 2016 were under 35 years of age.
The former regional co-ordinator for Young Agrarians, a network of young farmers, said barriers for young people include property costs and knowledge transfer.
“I started out farming by working on a farm in the North Okanagan, so I was learning on the job and I think a lot of the new entrants are doing that,” Michelle Tsutsum, who is now the communications lead for Kamloops Food Policy Council, told KTW.
“If they’re not, I would highly recommend that because you can learn by experiencing and really get a sense if that’s something you want to do.”
Another trend is consolidation in the beef and dairy industries.
It appears the number of farms in the TNRD is shrinking. In 2006, the region was home to 1,211 farms. A decade later, that number had dropped to 1,017.
Meanwhile, the average farm size and capital shot up.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the average farm size in the TNRD in 2006 was 400 hectares, compared to 540 hectares in 2016. In addition, the total farm capital in 2006 was $1.29 billion, compared to $2.39 billion in 2016.
Along with trying to attract young people to the industry, hydro costs, water quality and water availability limit access to otherwise farmable land.
Of 143,000 hectares of prime agricultural land in the region, just 25,000 hectares is irrigated.
Other water issues include the cost of maintaining or replacing dams.
The TNRD has 378 dams, most of which supply irrigation to agricultural land. Many of the reservoirs have since become recreational areas for the public.
“What is happening is where the dam is located, development has occurred below the dam, whether that’s infrastructure for highways or housing,” Strachan explained.
“The downstream hazard has increased dramatically for a lot of these. The pressure is being put on the licence holder to ensure that the dams are safe, which is reasonable. But that is extremely costly. Inspections can cost thousands of dollars. Maintenance can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Replacement can costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is a concern there.”
The board heard it can support agriculture by supporting the Agricultural Land Reserve and land-use planning that halts erosion of agricultural land.
The board can also support the farming community, recognize it as a stable industry that contributes to the economy, protect and plan for necessary resources (such as water and ranges) and recognize individual farms and ranches need to be viable for a successful industry.